Hello shoppers...

Is there anything we buy that's more confusing, confounding and con-frustrating, than consumer electronics?

Why can't a big screen TV or cell phone or portable GPS system be a piece of cake to operate, like an ice cream cone? Hold it, lick it, hold it, lick it, bite it, brain freeze, you're done. You don't see Baskin Robins offering a Geek Squad, or 24 hour toll-free support number. Do tech designers at Panasonic and Sony and LG purposefully design their products to be somebody stick a pencil in my eye cause I'm going insane difficult to use because girls wouldn't date their nerdy little selves in high school? Please, Moms - encourage your daughters to befriend high school geeks, so we can have a Blackberry that doesn't require membership in Mensa to operate, by 2027.

Regardless of their complexity - or perhaps, even, because of it - we love gadgets. Global sales of consumer electronics topped $700 billion last year and will likely surpass that in 2010, as we browse, try, buy, unbox and stupidly stare at our just-purchased laptops, Blue-ray DVD players, Ipads and portable navigation systems.

Much of which we purchase at Best Buy.

Best Buy - which started in Minnesota, just like Target, and plays music in their stores, just un-like Target - is a huge player in consumer electronics, accounting for 19% of all consumer electronics sales in North America and totalling $50 billion in worldwide revenue in 2010, spent at over 1,150 stores, staffed by 180,000 employees.

In the Des Moines area, there are three Best Buy stores - one on S.E. 14th, one by Jordan Creek Mall and one at 4100 University Avenue - the focus of today's Secret Shopper review.

When I called that location to find out how many square feet it is, I went into the automation ("We are sold out of Ipads.") and then hit "3" to "speak to a sales associate." 30 rings later (I counted, that's what I do) Will picked up, and told me he couldn't give out that information.

The store is big.

Big enough that I did the usual - secret shopped the store twice, both times on a Tuesday, dressed as "Jonathan," in European formal in the morning, back again as "Jonnie," in Cambridge casual in the evening.

         "Jonathan"                "Jonnie"

Before we get to how the kids did - and most of the predominantly late teen and early 20-something young men and occasional women who staff this store are, for the most part, kids, at least to an old fart like me - here's what I know about Best Buy's customer service training program.

1. They have one.

2. It is highly regarded in the consumer electronics retail industry.

3. It includes secret shoppers - one BB employee told me, "We get secret shopped all the time."

Probably room for one more.

Here is that one more's scoring system:

  Horrific - a customer service nuclear bomb that's every owner's worst nightmare. The kind of service you call your friends to complain about.   

   Weak - a lot of work to be done, but there's hope.   

   Forgettable - not great, not bad. This is where most businesses end up.   

   Strong - some very good things are going on. Just needs some tweaking.   

   Stellar - first-rate, exceptional, off the hizzle. The kind of exemplary service you call your friends to brag about.

Full disclosure here - for two years I did customer service evaluation/secret shopping, employee training and marketing for a small, locally owned computer sales and repair company in Des Moines that competes, from a computer sales/service standpoint, with Best Buy. 

From that experience came proof of the truth that those of us with dominant left brains - analytical, reasoned, process-driven - have to work harder to develop our right brains - creative, emotional, warm squishy touchy feely, the part of our heads where great customer service comes from.

Which brings me back to the Unsecret Shopper's oft-recited axiom: Hire happy. Train skills.

Think Best Buy understands the importance of its customer's right brains? One of the marketing slides on their in-store laptops says, "Best Buy - Buyer Be Happy," as a fun take-off of "Buyer Beware."

It also simultaneously acknowledges our greatest joy and worst fear about electronic toys and gadgetswanting them is fun but shopping for, buying, owning and using them, can be more of an adventure and less of a trip to Adventureland.

Which is why, in this particular business category, it is even more important to have employees that follow the five pillars of customer service that I teach - smile, greet, engage, thank and follow-up. Therein lies the question - would the level of right-brain emotional/friendly/engaging customer service offered by Best Buy's employees, match the high quality of their left brain analytical/detail/product knowledge?

Let's see if Best Buy(er) be happy, indeed.

Staff Greeting/Jonathan

It was 11:40am on a warm, muggy Tuesday as I pulled into the not terribly full Best Buy parking lot.

There is an employee always stationed directly between the sliding glass entrance and exit doors of Best Buy, who is there, one suspects, to not only check receipts against what's in an outgoing patron's BB yellow bag, but also to greet and engage those patrons, whether they're just coming in or about to hit the road.

Jordan, stationed by the door, was watching another employee load something onto a cart and missed me coming in.

Head on a swivel, Mr. Greeter, head on a swivel.

After walking past two employees who saw me but said nothing, it was Alex, in computers, who got my shopping party started, five minutes in.

"Help you find anything today?" came his closed-ended question, but through a nice smile.

Let the Secret Shopping begin.

Staff Greeting/Jonnie

At 6:43pm, with the dark-gray threat of approaching thunderstorms rumbling in the distant cumulus nimbus clouds, occasionally illuminated by a failing incandescent that God was tapping on (Step up to a more dependable CFL) I stepped back through the sliding glass entrance doors, into Best Buy's pleasantly cool air-conditioned retail atmosphere.

Walking in sloowly, I wanted to give Cameron, the 2nd shift store greeter on my left, a chance to engage me.

He didn't. I went back to walking like a regular dude.

After walking past and being ignored by three store employees, I came upon Riley, who graduated Waukee High in 2008 and was currently stocking hard drives in 2010. I purposefully browsed as close to him as I could, without officially being considered married to him in Missouri, but he ignored me like we'd been hitched for 30 years and focused instead on sliding the new hard drives onto their corresponding display wires.

I finally engaged him, asking him the time, and about himself, at which point he smiled and engaged right back.

We'll call that the opening greeting. It would go downhill from there.

Staff Interaction/Jonathan

Standing beside Alex in Computers, watching and listening to him describe features on laptops, I was extremely impressed with his product knowledge.

I was also completely lost, about two sentences in.

"This Gateway has the AMD Turion 2 dual-core mobile processor, 4 gig DDR 2 memory..."

And Alex talks fast. To quote HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey - "My mind is going...I can feel it."

Alex knows his stuff and then some. He doesn't know that I don't know his stuff and then none, or at least wasn't thinking in those terms at that moment. And the more he tried to stuff my head full of his stuff, the less it was accepting, like a stomach that's offered six tacos and a large potato oles right after binging on Thanksgiving Dinner.

The tip to Alex, and everyone in retail: use analogies, similes, metaphors and other simple, easy to understand comparisons, to help explain complex features to average shoppers, especially those features associated with consumer electronics.

"A dual-core processor means you can download a movie trailer for the insufferable The A-Team  in about the same time it will take you to eat half a ham sandwich, vs. quad-core, which will have those horrifying images playing before the Wonder Bread even hits your mouth."

Something else Alex said, is a retail no-no.

Talking about Gateway, he said, "Their customer service is a little shaky. I don't exactly trust them."


I feel no personal affinity for Gateway (although the cow thing is kinda cute) but the employee doesn't know that. I may own a Gateway and love it. I may own Gateway stock. Heck, I may own cows.

And regardless of what an employee may think or even know about a product they sell, sharing something negative about it with a customer will immediately bring two questions to that customer's mind:

1. Then why are you selling it?

2. What else are you selling that I should avoid?

Yes, Alex was looking out for me, yes I appreciate that. But an employee can never ever ever EVER pit him or herself against the products they are selling, in order to garner favor with a customer. Whether their belief in that product's fallibility is true or not, it will only create a bad taste in the customer's mouth.

This simple rule applies - to the customer, employees represent the logo on their shirt. They ARE their employers.

So instead, position it this way. "I love Gateway, but I love Dell even more, and here's why..." Positive, positiver, good, gooder, happy, happier.

Some other things, Alex - continue to smile while we're engaging each other, introduce yourself by name at some point and ask me for mine, and shake my hand and use my name again, at the end. Laptops are big-ticket items that require big boy interaction, if you want to make the sale, so humanize yourself because you are, indeed, a human :) and a very knowledgeable and engaging one at that. Establish that we are emotional equals, even if we're not so much in computer knowledge. Slow down your cadence, don't talk smack about your products, keep it positive and simple enough for a 45 year-old tech-unsavvy guy to understand, and you'll be a rock star.

Josh, who worked in software and went to Johnston High School, walked past me several times without saying anything, until I finally turned to him and made eye contact, to which he responded, "What's goin on?" It wasn't exactly "Whassss uuuuuuuuuuuuup?" but it certainly lives in the same zip code. Josh has a radiant smile and made great eye contact, which he needs to share with me without me having to share mine first.

John Barlow - who was originally from Germany, wasn't wearing the standard Best Buy shirt (probably unrelated) and may have been a manager - approached me a few minutes later.

"Find everything okay?"

No - can you tell me where I can find an open-ended question?

I didn't find one in Home Theater/TV's either, when Mike asked, "Can I answer any questions about the TV's?"

But from that point on, Mike was stellar, simply the best salesperson I'd encounter on the floor, during either trip to Best Buy.

Mike spent the next 20 minutes thoroughly answering all my questions, in terms I could understand. He explained the difference between LCD, LED and Plasma, talked about the positives and short-comings of each and why two TV's of the same style and size were priced differently. As he explained, Mike also asked questions, a textbook technique to keep the customer engaged.

Then he did something that was so uber-cool, I couldn't stop smiling.

At a certain point, I turned and began to step away, browsing at models. Mike stopped talking and instead followed, a respectful 6-8 feet behind me, allowing me to take in what he'd just told me and apply it to what I was looking at. We did that for a few minutes, until he said, excitedly, "Hey, wanna see the 3-D?"

I could have kissed him. I may go back and do so, because I plan on revisiting the store and purchasing the stupid-big 60 inch Plasma, from Mike.

One bad move, not on Mike's part but on Joel's, who came up while Mike and I were goofily wearing our 3-D glasses and checking out the on-screen images and said, "Hey when you're done with that, I need your help over here."

Bad timing, bad move.

First, I'm not a "that," I'm a customer. Second, I need Mike's help here, which trumps you needing Mike's help over there - go get your own cool sales dude. Third, an employee should never interrupt another employee who is engaging a customer, especially for their own personal needs. That's inappropriate, a total no-no - wait until he's done helping me, and free and clear of other customers.

"Hello, how are you this afternoon?" said Sara(h), warmly and smiley, as I entered Musical Instruments, followed by "If you have any questions about anything, just let me know."  She sent me on my way with a very nice, "Take it easy," exactly what I'd expect from someone who plays "a little guitar, a little drums," but admittedly isn't terribly hot at tickling the cool ivories, which she said she gave up in high school.  

Ron in GPS/Mobile Electronics greeted with, "Help you with anything?" Nope. I know everything about these. In fact I build them - my name is Gary Pluribus Smith.

Ron, who once worked at The Finish Line at Valley West Mall, needs to ask a stronger, more engaging open-ended question, as does every employee who did the same, which is all of them except one, who I'll get to shortly. Try "What can I help you with today?" or "If you're looking for GPS equipment, you've come to the right place, which means you must have a pretty good sense of direction to start with - are ya sure you really need one?"

It rarely ceases to amaze me, how funny I am.

A weaker opening question came next from Jon, in appliances, who said, "You alright?"

Nothing that stepping inside one of these refrigerators, closing the door and cutting off my oxygen, won't cure.

Yet when I asked him his name (no one ever offered theirs without being asked, and one young man, in the evening session, flat-out refused to tell me his - more on that later) Jon's smile hit his face like a thunderbolt, and he suddenly warmed up. The 2006 graduate of Roosevelt High School can be very engaging, if he wants to be.

Want to be, Jon. We shoppers deserve to see your friendly, smiley, happy side, because it rocks.

"Anything we can help you find today?" was Andrew's smile-free opening gambit, in Mobile Phones, yet his face beamed when I asked him the time, at the end. Use it at the beginning, Andrew, and don't be stingy in the middle, either. :)

Jake, in MP3's and Ipods, continued the pattern -"Doing alright over here?" - along with no smile at the beginning but a big smile at the end. 

A female shopper, walking past, loudly exclaimed to her companion, "Oh we can get this at WalMart, same thing."  

Yes, ma'am - they may also have a XXL t-shirt that fits you better than the medium you're wearing, plus I'd go ahead and buy a bra and put it on while you're in the fitting room, since this undergarment-free look you're rolling with is really clashing with your tats.

Over to the Geek Squad repair area I went, where Kim's voice was music to my ears.

"What can I help you with?"

Ahhhhhhh - sweet retail open-ended question nectar, the first such question I'd heard all morning.

The warm fuzzy feeling was soon extinguished by a bucket of ice water, as an employee working behind the nearby customer service desk bellered, "What up, guy?"

Just my blood pressure - got a defibrillator, guy?

Jordan the store greeter, who'd been doing something and hadn't seen or acknowledged me as I came in, saw me and managed a tepid, barely audible whisper of a "Thank you" as I walked out.

Now look here, Jordan - you're a big guy, probably, what, 6-3? You told me you are from Fairfield - I've been to Fairfield, and I know for a fact that everyone in that town is loud and friendly, like they've just spent 2 hours on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. You also told me that you've only been with Best Buy a few weeks. So here's your chance to blow the socks off of management, by blowing the doors off of customers. Smile! Greet! Engage! Thank! Sound off, like you've got a pair!

Make your peeps back in Fairfield, proud. Okay? :)

At 12:40, exactly one hour after I'd entered, I stepped back out through Best Buy's automatic sliding exit doors and towards my parked Prius, many hours from returning to see how the staff would do in Secret Shopping, Round II.

Staff Interaction/Jonnie

I never want to hurt any employee's feelings, because my goal is to help them improve their level of customer service and I can't do that if they hate my Secret Shopper guts.

But speaking strictly as a shopper and a professional secret one at that, there's no other way to describe my 78 minute early evening romp through Best Buy, other than as an unmitigated disaster.

Riley, stocking in hard drives, told me about wrestling for Waukee, then, without apparently wrestling with the idea of asking me if I needed any help, walked away.

Keith, a bearded older gentleman, walked toward me. Ahh, I thought, this retail veteran would show these young dudes how it was done.

Nope - he looked me in the eye, looked immediately away and scooted past without so much as a grunt.

I would soon discover just how much he'd been sharing what he knew to do,with the young dudes.

First though, I got a nice, if closed ended greeting from someone who'd apparently fallen asleep during Keith's training. It was, ironically enough, Will, who'd originally engaged me in laptops, nearly seven hours earlier.

"Looking for anything?"

I'll say what I said before, in the first trip through Best Buy - Will is a budding superstar, who just needs some tweaking.

Ryan, stocking in the printer cartridge aisle, somewhat comically took a step away from me with each step I took towards him, yet sadly, not once thinking it appropriate to ask, "What can I help you find, before you step on my foot?"

Dude, you went to Ames High and Iowa State, seven miles from Cambridge, where I grew up and cheered on the 'Clones. Don't let a fellow Cardinal and Gold brutha down - do the natural human thing when someone's standing close enough to tie your shoes. Say hello.

I moved onto the Home Theater/TV's section, and began browsing the beautiful LCD's, LED's, Plasmas and 3-D's - completely alone, by myself, without being helped, for 15 minutes, while employees Don and Mirza stood under the "Home Theater" sign, and chatted.

That can't happen. Not at Best Buy. Not at Best Buy, which is, to me, a retail name synonymous with big screen TV's.

The only reason I was engaged by Don - who recently retired from the Marine Corps, has a wonderful smile and great product knowledge, nearly rivaling Mike's, from earlier that day - is because I engaged first. Otherwise, two employees, covering an area no larger than the length of a bowling alley, allowed a middle-aged man with a lot of cash and a hankerin to watch Skinamax After Dark in 3-D,  to wander, unattended, for a quarter-hour, through the very section they're paid to oversee.

Don, you told me you've been working at the store since October, and have been rapidly working your way up to a supervisory role. That's absolutely fantastic!

My heartfelt suggestion to you, as a fan and as a man who wants to see you continue your upward trajectory, is to get your head on a swivel, otherwise I'm heading to WalMart, where I'd expect to be ignored but might find it worth it, to save $25. 

Message to all retailers - never allow a customer to start thinking in those terms. Kill them with kindness, and ensure the thought never enters their brains.

One more tip, Don. If there was ever a person in that store who should have shaken my hand and asked for my name, it was a 20 year Marine Corps vet. I'm being hard on you because you're a Marine, and because I know you can take it, and will take it, and learn from it.

Walking into Musical Instruments, Luke greeted pleasantly but closed-endedly, "Help you find anything?"

Nope. Just keep sitting and playing that guitar across your thigh, while I play along on an electric keyboard behind you, which I did, quite nicely, I might add, rolling out chords in E while Luke strummed - and I don't think he knew it, which was kinda cool. :)

The second strangest encounter of the night occurred in GPS/Mobile Electronics, where I was startled by a talking shelf, which turned out to be Sara(h), a store employee who was off the clock, out of uniform and sitting on a lower shelf, towards the floor, just...sitting there.

Her joy and energy and smile were fantastic, the best of anyone in the store. I guessed she was happy and outgoing because she wasn't working, but maybe she's like that all the time. Yet finding her, just...sitting there...was weird, even for my hippie peace and love leanings.

"Just let me know if there's any questions I can help answer for you," she said sweetly, and more than once. Sure - can you put on a uni and punch in, so I can take you seriously?

She was soon joined by two other employees, one in Best Buy blue and another wearing a Geek Squad patch, both clearly on the clock and working their shift, but both doing un-shift-like things, like talking to her and each other, loudly, about personal stuff, outside the scope of work.

That's why employees who are out of uniform and off the clock, should be out of the store and off the premises.

As if there needed to be another reason, Tony, one of the two employees gathered around Sara(h), provided it, as he noticed me as I walked back into the area.

He semi-turned away from the important employee conversation he was engaged in, long enough to ambivalently ask me, "Need any help with anything?" Before I could get the words, "No, I'm fine" out of my mouth, he'd already turned back towards his co-workers, and continued yakking.

That can't happen II.

I moved on to Ipods and Accessories, where Brian, stocking shelves, ignored me, until Doriano, a former Best Buy employee, who I'd shared some pleasantries with, mentioned to Brian, within my earshot, that "this gentleman over here is looking for something and might need some help."

Brian's greeting: "Anything I can help you with?"

Please, for the love of retail, Doriano, come back, they need you. I'll be a reference!

At Mobile Phones I was allowed to browse in excess of 15 minutes, unencumbered and unattended, while James and another employee worked with a customer for five minutes, then ignored me for another 10, until finally, tired of leaning against the counter and talking to his co-worker, James ventured out and engaged me with, "Need help with anything?" Equally unpleasant, James would look away, every time I looked him in the face.

That can't happen LXVIII.

Seriously, Doriano - whatever Wellmark is paying you, I'll augment it - just come baaaack!

However woeful my shopping experience had been at Best Buy this go-round, up to that point, it was about to take a subterranean turn downward at, of all places, the customer service desk, specifically at the Geek Squad counter.

That's where "Agent Hildreth" greeted me, pleasantly enough for starters, with "How can I help you?"

Let's stop right there.

All of us have a first and a last name. Our parents saw to it, as the state of Iowa, and the United States of America, require it.

When I asked the young man his name, he responded, "Agent Hildreth." I smiled, thinking this was a sort of inside joke, poking fun at the whole "Geek Squad" moniker.

"That's cute," I smiled, "but seriously, what's your name?"

"Agent Hildreth," repeated Agent Hildreth.

I stared at him, jaw dropping, birds flying into the opening, laying eggs and leaving.

"Are you telling me that you're not going to tell me your first name?"

"I go by Agent Hildreth at work, that's my name."

"What's your first name?"

"Agent Hildreth."

"So your first name is 'Agent?'"

"That's my title but I'm not going to tell you my first name."

"How come Kim, who works in this department, told me his first name?"

"That's because he's a manager."

"And so only managers can engage customers in a personal way, with their first names?"

"I think going by my last name is more respectful towards customers?"

"How is that, exactly?"

"Why would I use someone's first name, who I don't even know?"

"Well why even use their last name, based upon that premise?"

"We have to be called something."

At that point, I had some ideas.

The remaining 14 minutes of conversation was one of the more surreal, stupefying and stupid I've ever had the displeasure of being a part of, and I used to live in Texas.

A few points to point out to the marketing folks at Best Buy Corporate, who came up with this interesting way to "engage" customers, in the Customer Service Department.

1. First and foremost, never continue to antagonize a clearly antagonized customer, especially when you're entrusted, as a member of the customer service team, to serve the customer. End the name game, break the rules and share your first name.

2. By de-humanizing computer repair technicians, who are forced by Best Buy to use handles that are IRS Agent machine-like, the company plays directly into consumer's greatest fears about computer repair techs, that they're left-brain analytical unemotive robots who can't feel their pain and relate to them on a normal first name human level.

3. Calling someone "Agent (last name)" seems silly. It makes a joke out of these highly trained computer techs, who are in the business of helping consumers who take their computers, and their computer issues, very seriously.

4. The Geek Squad guys wear white shirts and black ties and use the handle, "Agent (last name)." This bears a disturbing similarity to Jehovah's Witnesses, who also wear white shirts and black ties and use the handle, "Brother (last name)." I know why Jehovah's Witnesses do it - to connect, to unite, as "brothers" and "sisters." 

Why does Best Buy do it?

To me, regardless of why, this is flat-out bad store policy, poorly executed.

Yet the entire 17 minute ordeal was, in some respects, a fitting end to the ordeal of the previous hour, spent in the store.

I was reminded of Chuck Heston's line, from Planet Of The Apes - "It's a madhouse! A madhouse!" - as I quickly walked out through the automatic sliding glass exit doors, barely noticing that Cameron, the store greeter, didn't say a word.




Best Buy on University, like all Best Buy's in the Universe, is a gadget-lover's paradise, a pantheon to every terrible human instinct that moves men ( and women ) to buy a brand new 60 inch LED 3-D TV, because witnessing the stunning grace and beauty of a pirouetting Steve Wozniak on DWTS on a Paleolithic-era 52-inch flat screen plasma relic we bought way back in 2007, just doesn't cut it anymore.

Best Buy on University is not, however - based upon what can be taken away from these two short visits in one day - a customer service utopia. There appears to be a moderate to at times severe disconnect between the stuff they sell, the employees who sell it and the customers they want to sell it to.

To create a stronger relationship between all three - the great challenge of all retail stores, regardless of category - requires a strong, consistent focus on the "human" side of retail, the emotions, the feelings, the attitudes of customers, so easily elevated when attention is given to them, by happy, smiling, engaging, thankful employees.

Since 80% of all the decisions we make are based upon how we feel, not what we think, it might behoove the managers and staff at this Best Buy location, who are all very smart and very product-knowledgeable,  to think - actually, to feel - long and hard about how their customers must feel, roaming the store where they work, without benefit of consistent smile, greeting, open-ended question, caring engagement and thank you's from employees - the four pillars of great customer service.

In the ever-competitive world of consumer electronics, there is simply no device that can replace a smile, no PDA that can substitute for a friendly greeting, no CD track that can supplant the sound of our name being spoken, a pat on the back, a thank you.

Plugging into how other people feel has a term - empathy. By learning how to tap into it, to unlock it and unleash it within themselves, the staff at Best Buy can create the most empathetic, engaging retail staff in Des Moines, for a customer base who, in the world of consumer electronics, is desperately searching for it.

You know your products well. Know your customers better. That's the best way to help the Buyer, Be Happy.

Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of "The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show," Saturday mornings 8-9am on 1350 KRNT. Email Jonnie at jonniewright@thebuyosphere.com.

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